Elections as Rocket Science and Brain Surgery

270px-STS120LaunchHiRes-edit1Finally some discomfort with and discussion of the idea of ambiguity and the notion of accuracy vs precision in elections is beginning to surface. As the purpose of this blog is to trigger thinking and reflection on the administration of elections, I hope that readers will feel free to disagree, agree, pose questions, answer questions and generally engage professionally and intellectually in this forum. With that in mind, I want to respond to some of the questions and points raised in the various comments in this blog.

We continue, as election geeks and critics, to struggle with the idea that a “good” election may not be an error free election and that an accurate election may not be a perfect election. Bill Kelleher points out that what is a “good” election for one person may be a “bummer” for another. That point is well taken but goes to the core problem in evaluating the “goodness” of an election. The current partisan political environment, enflamed by the media and political parties, wants to judge the quality of an election by who the winners are. In contrast, as professionals and scholars, we should evaluate an election as a process and by its ability to provide an unambiguous outcome.

In a previous discussion of accuracy vs precision, I used the example of rocket science so let me offer a spacefaring example as an illustration. While NASA suffered two tragedies during the three decade lifespan of the Space Shuttle program, it also had 133 successful missions. Success in this example is defined as launching into space and returning safely to earth which, when one thinks about it, is a remarkable accomplishment. NASA engineers knew that there were problems during several of the missions (O-ring blow-by and heat shield damage and missing tiles for example) but the existence of these issues did not cause the missions to be considered failures. Only when the issues prevented the safe launch and return to earth were the missions considered tragic failures. Using a medical example, a surgery is considered a success when the tumor is safely removed and the patient recovers. Pain during recovery or the presence of an uglier than necessary scar does not render the surgery a failure.

Elections should be similarly evaluated as rocket science (shuttle launches) and brain surgery (tumor removal). Did the election process yield an accurate and unambiguous outcome despite any issues or problems, real or perceived, which may have occurred? If yes, then the election, like 133 shuttle missions and countless surgeries must be considered “good.”

This standard automatically begs the question raised again by Bill Kelleher “What is ambiguity?” We know that during several shuttle missions, NASA knew that the heat shield was damaged and it was uncertain whether or not the shuttle would return safely. The situation was ambiguous until the shuttle safely returned to earth. Once the ambiguity was resolved, the mission(s) were considered successful. Until there was some means of demonstrating that an error or issue would not affect the outcome, the result remained in doubt and ambiguous. Interestingly in elections, even when election administrators successfully “land the shuttle” there are some who cling to and make an issue of any issues or errors that occurred during the “mission.”

Stay tuned for further discussion on ambiguity.


[photo courtesy of Wikipedia]


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